Friday 15 October 2021

Prayers for the Stolen (Tatiana Huezo, 2021)

Utrecht native Huub Bals may be best known as the creator and director of the International Film Festival Rotterdam, but right up until his premature death—aged just 51—he worked hard to set up what was then known as the Tarkovsky Fund; following his death, the fund would take on its creator's name as it sprang into action to aid filmmakers in the developing world.  Bals firmly believed that, with the necessary support, many fine films would come from outside of Western Europe and coastal North America; he also held forthright views on the quality of Dutch and American movies, and felt that great cinema was more likely to come from Asia, Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe.  For more than 30 years, the Hubert Bals Fund has assisted in the production of numerous prestigious, well-received titles, including Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Cemetery of Splendour, Alejandro Landes' Monos, and Carlos Reygadas' Japón.  

One of the fund's most recent beneficiaries is Tatiana Huezo's Mexico-set feature debut Prayers for the Stolen, which plays today at the London Film Festival.  An adaptation of Jennifer Clement's eponymous novel, Huezo's film focuses on a rural mountain community under the thumb of the cartels; here, forced disappearances are a regular occurrence, and the frequent, ominous rumble of 4x4 vehicles headed for the village instils fear among the residents—particularly those who have young daughters.  Should the day arrive when the cartel's footsoldiers come calling, village girl Ana (played by Ana Cristina Ordóñez González and Marya Membreño) has a contingency plan in place: a concealed, child-sized hole in the garden.  As the film begins, Ana is shown being helped into this space by her mother, and it soon transpires that this is a drill the two will need to carry out fairly regularly if Ana is to remain out of harm's reach.

Just as the roar of SUVs is rightly feared, so is the drone of the helicopters that haphazardly spray a noxious substance on the nearby fields; it is in these pastures that many of the villagers eke out a living by collecting poppy sap, which is later used to make heroin.  It's clear that several girls have already been taken from the village, and when Ana visits a hairdresser for a radical cut—on the pretext of preventing lice—it's chillingly clear that a boyish look may go some way towards keeping the local girls off the gang's radar.  The entire community lives under the Damoclean sword of the cartel, and a meeting at the local school reveals how staff there are forced to abandon their pupils at short notice; while the parents clearly want this sympathetic and well-liked teacher to stay, it's equally obvious that everyone in the room knows the penalty for defying orders.

Much if not all of Prayers for the Stolen's tension comes from wondering how the seemingly inevitable abduction attempt is going to play out; from the outset—and in line with the principle of Chekhov's gun—it's a given that Ana will eventually have to climb into that cramped burrow in her garden, but not knowing what will happen when she's in there is precisely what keeps us hooked.  It's a brooding, lyrical film, one that occasionally sees childhood innocence transcend the brutal violence of the criminal gangs, and the two young actresses who portray Ana at different stages of her life give fine, authentic performances.  While the futility of taking on the cartel is plain to see, there are several moments when the sense of oppression is supplanted by the quotidian, which might suggest that normality isn't necessarily a thing of the past.  One suspects that Huub Bals would highly approve of this subtle, confident work, which serves as further proof of the ongoing value of his filmmaker fund.   

Darren Arnold